Legislative Roundup: Bumpstock Battle and the “Predator” Senator

Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

PHOENIX — While the banks were closed and the mailman stayed home for Presidents Day, the Arizona State Legislature met like any other Monday. This week was light on committees and heavy on floor votes, with each day featuring a marathon of Committee of the Whole meetings devoted to moving legislation.

“Predator” Senator

Former Arizona State Sen. Steve Montenegro has been in the spotlight this week after revelations over a relationship he had last year with a Senate staffer, who had allegedly sent him photos “in various states of undress.” The 31-year-old woman is being represented by attorney Tom Ryan, who gave a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday about the nature of the relationship and its being made public.

Attorney Tom Ryan holds up a copy of texts sent between former Arizona State Senator Steve Montenegro and a Senate staffer. (Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News)

“Here was a  woman who was trying to put her life back together, and Sen. Steve Montenegro took advantage of her,” Ryan said.

According to Ryan, the affair (Montenegro is married, and the staffer had a boyfriend) started in February of 2017 and lasted until “about a month ago.” What began as professional works texts between the two soon moved to personal questions and late-night conversations. The two often used the Snapchat app to send messages  (and allegedly in the staffer’s case, explicit photos) that were temporary and were deleted.

After the fallout over former U.S. Rep. Trent Franks stepping down over sexual harassment allegations, Montenegro made sure that the staffer wouldn’t go public with their relationship.

“Yeah you would never ever have to worry about me,” the unnamed staffer said in a text message dated 2:11 PM 12/7/17.

He certainly did begin to worry when the staffer’s ex-boyfriend allegedly stumbled upon the texts and a photo, according to Ryan. The ex confronted the woman and began shopping the photo and texts around to reporters, which is when the story went public. According to Ryan, the ex was the one who introduced the woman to him as a whistleblower. He agreed immediately to take up the case, pro bono.

Sultry allegations like this are news in and of themselves — but the plot thickens. Montenegro is running for disgraced Franks’ seat as a U.S. Representative for Congressional District 8, and his challenger for the Republican primary is former Arizona State Senator Debbie Lesko. Lesko has been calling for him to drop out of the race because of these allegations, which he has called “false tabloid trash.”

“Now we see Steve Montenegro basically lying to the press about the affair, calling this ‘tabloid trash,’ and saying he never solicited anything,” Ryan said.

The woman released a statement explaining that she felt comfortable enough in the relationship with Montenegro to send him the explicit photos, which he asked to have over Snapchat so that they would not remain in his phone as text messages. Copies of the text messages show that she had at one point deleted Snapchat from her phone but Montenegro asked her to re-download the app and interact with him from there.

Bump Stock Battle

The big debate of the week came as a legislative ambush orchestrated by Rep. Randall Friese (D-Tucson) on HB 2024, which bans bump stocks.

Friese had introduced the bill earlier this year but the bill was never heard in committee. As a last-ditch effort to have the bill heard, Friese interrupted the calendar on Tuesday to force a vote on whether  to hear the bill on the floor. The House voted in favor of sticking to the agenda, but not before members had the chance to speak about action on gun control.

Several of the Republican legislators made a connection between violent video games and school shootings, which led to some sidetracked statements arguing whether this was the issue.

“I would be happy to regulate games,” Rep. Mark Finchem (R-Tucson) said. “It’s the heart and minds of the people using these devices.”

Rep. Kelly Townshend (R-Queen Creek) was quick to point out the medicated nature of the shooters as well as the ease at which someone can get an abortion as possible root causes for shootings.

“Many of the people committing these crimes are on psychotropic medications,” Townshend said. “We are in a culture of death.”

The Democrats who spoke in favor of visiting Friese’s bill were impassioned but outnumbered — calling on their fellow legislators to change their votes and allow the bill to be heard.

“Schools have become killing fields,” Rep. Gerae Peten (D-Goodyear) said. “Videogames don’t kill people. Actual guns don’t kill people. It’s people with guns that kill people.”

Rep. Athena Salman (D-Phoenix) gave a tearful anecdote of her fear for her aunt during a drive-by shooting years ago, and went further than her colleagues in demanding a vote.

“I’m not asking for a discussion,” Salman said. “I’m asking for action.”

The motion to remain on the agenda passed 34-25, meaning Friese and friends can only offer thoughts and prayers for the chance to discuss his bill.

Elected at Any Age

Any age older than 17, that is. House Concurrent Resolution 2036, introduced by Rep. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale), would have eliminated minimum age requirements for legislators and elected judicial positions. Currently, a candidate has to be at least 25 to run for a seat in the Legislature or a state office, with 30 being the age for judicial positions.

“They’re able to vote at 18 years old, and yet we can’t trust the voters to put them in office,” Kern said.

While the same argument is made for lowering the drinking age, evidently serving the public is sobering enough that a recent high school grad can do it. However, half the legislators in the committee disagreed. The Resolution failed in the House Appropriations Committee with a vote of 6-6, with one absence.

Mentioning the Mottoes

The Senate has passed a bill that enshrines the right of educators to educate students on complex American history concepts like the state motto and the national anthem. Sen. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford) introduced SB 1289 which adds the state motto to the list of elements of American heritage that school administrators and teachers can post or read, as well as highlighting the national motto “In God we trust” as item Number One.

It passed its third read with a vote of 17-13 in favor, and next will go to the Senate Committee of the Whole for yet another vote.

Erik Kolsrud is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the school of journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu.

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